Western hostility to Islam is stoked by double standards and distortion

July 21, 2009

Western hostility to Islam is stoked by double standards and distortion
The political and media bias is clear. But we Arabs and Muslims too must combat false, retrograde ideas around our religion
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Alaa Al Aswany
guardian.co.uk, Monday 20 July 2009 23.55 BST
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Denny Pattyn is an American priest of a special kind. In 1996 in Arizona, he set up a programme by the name of the Silver Ring Thing with the aim of urging young Americans to refrain from sex before marriage, convincing them that it is fornication, and sinful. Pattyn regularly holds events attended by hundreds of young Americans who read the Bible with him and then pledge before the Lord to preserve their virginity for their future spouses. At the end of the celebration, each puts on their left hand a silver ring inscribed with Biblical verses, which they wear until they marry.

The surprising thing is that Pattyn’s campaign has won a large following in the US, and received funding from the government. On French television I saw a long programme about Pattyn in which his followers defended virginity as a measure of virtue. A French psychologist appeared to discuss their ideas respectfully.

I began to wonder: Pattyn’s ideas about chastity as a measure of virtue are completely in line with Arab Muslim culture, but yet on French TV they deal with him politely because he is American, Christian and white. If an Arab or Muslim had said the same thing, he would have faced a barrage of accusations that he was backward, barbaric and contemptuous of women.

This western double standard is widespread, and there are countless examples. Elections recently took place in Iran and the winner was President Ahmadinejad. But there were allegations of vote-rigging. Western governments were up in arms, issuing strongly worded statements in support of democracy in Iran.

Yet Egyptian elections have been rigged regularly for many years and President Mubarak has taken office through rigged referendums, so why hasn’t that provoked such anger? The outcry is not to promote democracy but rather to embarrass the Iranian regime, which is hostile towards Israel and trying to develop its nuclear capabilities, which are a threat to western imperialism. The Egyptian government, on the other hand, in spite of being despotic and corrupt, is obedient and tame, so the western media overlook its faults, however horrendous they might be.

When the young Iranian woman called Neda Soltan was shot by an unknown assailant, her death quickly became global headline news. Western politicians were so moved that even President Obama, close to tears, said that it was heartbreaking. A few weeks later in the German city of Dresden, an Egyptian woman called Marwa el-Sherbini was attending the trial of a man who racially abused her because she was wearing a hijab. Fined €2,800 for insulting her, the extremist then went on a rampage, attacking Marwa and her husband with a knife. Marwa died on the spot.

The murder of Marwa and the murder of Neda should be seen as crimes of equal barbarity and of equal impact. But the murder of the Egyptian woman in the hijab did not break Obama’s heart and did not receive front-page coverage in the west. The murder of Neda incriminates the Iranian regime, whereas the murder of Marwa shows that terrorism is not confined to Arabs and Muslims – a white German terrorist kills an innocent women and tries to kill her husband simply because she is Muslim and wears a hijab. The western media do not care to convey this message.

In short the west, politically and in the media, generally adopts points of view and policies that are hostile towards Arabs and Muslims. But are Arabs and Muslims merely the innocent victims of this prejudice? Definitely not. We cannot use “the west” as an exclusive term meaning only one thing. There are millions of ordinary westerners who neither love nor hate Islam, simply because they know nothing about it.

Now, what of the image that Muslims themselves convey of Islam? If an ordinary westerner decided to find out the truth about Islam through what Muslims do and say, what would he find? Osama bin Laden would look out at him, as though emerging from a medieval cave to announce that Islam ordered him to kill as many western crusaders as possible, even if they are innocent civilians who have done nothing to merit punishment. Then the westerner would read how the Taliban has decided to close girls’ schools, arguing that Islam bans the education of women on the grounds that they are as intellectually and religiously deficient.

After that, the westerner would read statements from those who call themselves Islamic jurists, saying that a Muslim who converts to another faith must repent or have his throat cut. Some jurists will assert that Islam does not recognise democracy and that it is a duty to obey a Muslim ruler even if he oppresses and robs his subjects. They will welcome women covering their faces with the niqab so that those who see them are not driven by sexual desire.

The westerner will not find out that Islam gave men and women completely equal rights and obligations. He will not find out that in the eyes of Islam if someone kills an innocent it is as if he has killed everyone. He will never find out that the niqab has nothing to do with Islam but is a custom that came to us with the money of the Gulf from a backward desert society. The westerner will never find out that the real message of Islam is freedom, justice and equality, and that it guarantees freedom of belief, in that those who wish may believe and those who do not, need not, and that democracy is essential to Islam, in that a Muslim ruler cannot take office without the consent and choice of Muslims. After all that, can we blame the westerner if he considers Islam the religion of backwardness and terrorism?

Last year, I had to make a speech in Austria about the reality of Islam. I told how the Prophet Muhammad was so mild-mannered that when he knelt down to pray his grandsons Hassan and Hussein would often jump on his back in play. He would stay kneeling so as not to disturb the boys and then he would resume his prayers. I asked the audience: “Can you imagine that a man who stopped praying for the sake of children would advocate killing and terrorising innocent people?”

Many listened to this story with interestand later asked me how they could obtain real information about Islam. It is true that the west’s policy treats us as colonial peoples who do not deserve to enjoy the rights of their citizens, and it is true that its media is mostly biased against Arabs and Muslims – but it is also true that the retrograde Wahhabi reading of Islam that is now widespread helps to entrench an unfair and mistaken image.

It is our duty to start with ourselves. We must save Islam from all the nonsense, falsehoods and retrograde ideas that have attached themselves to it. Democracy is the solution.


Equal opportunity is fantasy in any society this unequal

July 21, 2009

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Equal opportunity is fantasy in any society this unequal
Declining social mobility has exposed Labour’s delusion that huge gaps in wealth do not harm poor children’s chances
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Polly Toynbee
guardian.co.uk, Monday 20 July 2009 23.30 BST
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Everyone thinks they want a society in which each child has the same chance to succeed according to their own talent and hard work, regardless of social background. Of course they do. Every politician mouths the same platitude, every party affirms it in its manifesto. Tony Blair spoke movingly of the day when two babies, rich and poor, born into the same maternity ward, would have the same opportunity to flourish – and he meant it. Of course he did. So did Gordon Brown when he set up the social mobility panel, under Alan Milburn, which reports today.

But on Labour’s watch, class has become more rigid, destiny for most babies is decided at birth, and the incomes of rich and poor families have drawn further apart. Labour didn’t mean that to happen and has tried to reverse it. Tax credits, Sure Start, nurseries for all, much better schools, many more university places and apprenticeships almost certainly stopped inequality growing far worse. Since Labour’s babies are still only 12, the long-term good effects of these programmes should prove deeper than current figures show: Milburn says he sees signs that the decline in social mobility “has bottomed out”. At last GCSE results are becoming less closely tied to parental income than before. But all the same, in Labour’s time the haves have accumulated more and made even more certain that their children would be haves too. The ladders up from bottom to top have grown steeper. The barriers preventing the rise of interlopers have grown higher, while the safety net preventing even the dimmest privileged children from slipping downwards has grown stronger.

That was the context when Brown surprisingly asked Milburn to investigate how to improve social mobility. Why Milburn? Perhaps as a sop to an old foe, but more likely because Milburn is as an arch-third wayist who would not frighten the horses by over-emphasising the true cause – gross inequality of wealth and income. Nonetheless, expect the report’s 90 recommendations to offer strong condemnation of the way top universities, professions and businesses perpetuate class privilege in their recruitment policies. Success will depend on persuading professions and employers that it’s in their interest to recruit from a deeper talent pool than the public school-educated cadres that dominate the bar, journalism, medicine, upper ranks of the civil service and all the most desirable jobs. The findings will make dismal reading, showing how the over-coached mediocre but well-spoken applicant with an easy manner wins over the brighter one from a bad school whose A-levels are a personal triumph against high odds. Milburn points to research from the Higher Education Funding Council for England showing that state school students with two A-level grades lower than private school students will get as good or better degrees.

He goes out of his way to emphasise that this isn’t just about the poor, but about families on average incomes with high aspirations for their children who lack the contacts and influence to push their children into top slots. The rise of unpaid internships gets the blast it deserves. It’s free labour slavery for the young who can afford to do it and yet denies access to all without parents to support them. All kinds of professions gladly take in bright graduates for free, so their CVs shine with experience their less fortunate contemporaries lack. It should be banned under employment law: instead the recommendation here is for a code of practice with a Kitemark, requiring wages and grants. Milburn is pressing for a permanent social mobility commission of distinguished experts to report every year, just as the child poverty target was fixed in law, with an annual progress report. It won’t make it happen, but it will embarrass any government that lets it slip backwards.

One of the report’s main authors, Geoffrey Vos QC, former chairman of the Bar Council, also chairs the Social Mobility Foundation, which organises high-grade mentoring and two-week taster internships in investment banks, chambers and businesses for clever pupils from schools unused to sending students to top universities. He tells of one investment bank that sends staff out a few days a year for community work in schools; when his foundation suggested it would be more useful if they invited in bright pupils to teach them about investment banking, they refused. The programme was designed to widen the experience of banking staff, not to mess up their office with inconvenient school students. The same famous investment bank had a special programme to assist the sons and daughter of its employees to follow in their parents’ footsteps – social immobility guaranteed from the very same gene pool. Too many top employers choose recruits in their own image – people they feel comfortable with – when what they will need to succeed is diverse staff to face a diverse world.

The report will put a deadly black spot on some cherished government programmes: Connexions, the £470m careers advice and teenage support scheme, Aimhigher and the Gifted and Talented school programme get short shrift. Instead it wants money diverted to making universities sit on the board of every secondary school – close school-university familiarity giving timely advice to 14-year-olds on choosing exam options works best in helping pupils upwards. Expect radical suggestions for training, skills and schools, though axing fees for undergraduates who live at home risks making it less likely poor students will travel to better universities.

On social mobility, Labour willed the ends without confronting the politically difficult means. Equality of opportunity doesn’t happen in any society as grossly unequal as this. The report shows graphically how the only countries that nurture talent regardless of class are those where incomes and lifestyles are most equal. The Nordics do best, because the ladder from top to bottom is short: it’s easy to climb and the social penality for slipping down is less. The US has the least mobility and the steepest ladders, despite the persistence of the anyone-can-make-it American dream. Britain lives with the same delusion, but Labour has learned the hard way that you can’t allow the well-off to keep acquiring more and at the same time hope the children of the poor can catch up with rich children’s life chances. Social mobility is not a separate programme that you can add regardless, like pepper and salt.

A culture of corruption has seeped far into governmenT

July 2, 2009

A culture of corruption has seeped far into governmentWhy do ministers still cling to discredited privatisation? Part of the answer must lie in the lure of the corporate embrace
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Seumas Milne guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 1 July 2009 21.00 BST Article historyThere is no end, it seems, to the fiasco of rail privatisation. For the second time in three years, the holder of the coveted east coast franchise has walked away from a contract it can no longer afford. Not only that, but it turns out that National Express – whose chief executive, Richard Bowker, has decamped to the Gulf in a hurry – has protected itself from the vast bulk of the £1.4bn it owes the government by insulating its subsidiary, Fred Goodwin style, as a “special purpose vehicle”.

But far from slinking off into the corporate undergrowth, National Express is now threatening to sue the government if it also takes over the company’s two other profitable franchises. Once again, we are in the world of the Metronet consortium, whose collapse finally discredited Gordon Brown’s disastrous public-private partnership for the London underground: where instead of transferring risk to the private sector, the government ends up subsidising private profit and picking up the bill when the music stops.

For all its rise in passenger numbers, Britain’s rail system remains hobbled by the folly of privatisation: overcrowded, unreliable, fragmented and exorbitantly expensive. But far from putting it out of its misery to create a reintegrated publicly owned railway at zero cost, the transport secretary, Lord Adonis, was yesterday insisting the east coast line would be up for tender again as soon as he could manage it.

It’s the same with nationalised Northern Rock. Instead of using it as an engine of public credit, ministers are itching to unload it – maybe on to Tesco. And even as evidence emerged this week that private prisons are performing worse than publicly owned ones, the government is pressing ahead with building yet more.

In England’s health service creeping privatisation is turning into a full-frontal assault as the government strains every nerve to give health corporations a bigger slice of the action: not only in buildings and maintenance, but diagnostics, elective surgery, GPs’ surgeries, district nursing, health visiting and trust commissioning – regardless of the views of staff and patients; the evidence on cost, inefficiency and lack of accountability; and the corrosive impact on the NHS ethos.

When Gordon Brown announced his new entitlement for cancer patients to be seen by a specialist within two weeks, he insisted on an entirely unnecessary extra pledge of private treatment if the NHS was unable to deliver. And when a string of private finance initiative projects – whose costs are now estimated to be double what they would be in the public sector – were on the point of collapse earlier this year, the government bailed them out rather than take them over.

What exactly is going on? At least with PFI, a major motivation continues to be to keep public investment off debt totals. But the passion for all things private goes far beyond that. Partly it’s an ideological conviction that still grips all the main party leaderships, regardless of multiple failures or alternative models.

But the ideology is driven by powerful vested interests. The market for privatised public services is getting on for £50bn and companies are hungry for more. Decades of lobbying politicians, the civil service, corporate-funded thinktanks and the media have created a received wisdom about markets and the private sector, resistant both to facts or the views of ordinary voters.

But corporate capture goes much further than lobbying. The revolving door that propels civil servants into the arms of companies for whom they previously set rules and signed off contracts was well established before New Labour came to power. But the process that saw Tony Blair’s former health adviser Simon Stevens effortlessly transmute into European president of the US company UnitedHealth, or his foreign policy adviser David Manning collect a clutch of directorships, from Lloyds TSB to Lockheed Martin, has now become the norm.

What’s new for Labour is the stampede of ministers for the revolving door. Since 2006, 37 former members of the government have been given permission to take private sector jobs within two years of leaving office. As with their Tory predecessors, many of these jobs involve working for companies directly bidding for government contracts and privatised services. They include Blair himself, of course, whose £12m annual income now includes multimillion contracts with banking groups JP Morgan Chase and Zurich Financial Services, in a sector lovingly protected during his time in office.

But there are plenty of others. The ex-transport minister Stephen Ladyman took a job with the traffic information company Itis, pitching for Whitehall business. The former defence minister Adam Ingram signed up as a consultant for EDS, whose major clients include the Ministry of Defence. One-time home secretary John Reid works for G4S security services, which also does business with his old department.

Interestingly, former health ministers have done particularly well. The ex-health secretary Patricia Hewitt earns more than £100,000 as a consultant for Alliance Boots and Cinven, a private equity group that bought 25 private hospitals from Bupa. After leaving the department, her predecessor, Alan Milburn, worked for Bridgepoint Capital, which successfully bid for NHS contracts, and now boasts a striking portfolio of jobs with private health companies.

When I rang Milburn yesterday to ask whether he saw any conflict of interest in his directorships, he swore and hung up, but later emailed to say he had “always followed the proper processes laid down for former ministers”. Which is perfectly true. None of these politicians has broken any rules, let alone the law. Their appointments were all signed off by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which insists “it is in the public interest” that ex-ministers “should be able to move into business”.

So it’s the rules that need drastic revision. This is a scandal that dwarfs the House of Commons expenses saga or the wider focus on MPs’ second jobs. It beggars belief that the prospect of lavish future consultancies doesn’t influence or shape the decisions of ministers when they’re dealing with corporate regulation and private contracts. A culture of corruption pervades the links between government and business, fuelled by and fuelling privatisation. These relationships are – as Adam Smith put it – a conspiracy against the public interest.